“I finally feel human!”
It was not a scream of joy and euphoria, but more like a whispered sigh of relief that was scarcely audible within the inner sanctum of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.
The speaker was a Rohingya woman, Fareed Khan told Convivium in an interview. Khan is the Ottawa-based Director of Advocacy and Media Relations for the Rohingya Human Rights Network.
The courtroom drama that elicited these words from the woman signified, in the opinion of experts, a small window of opportunity, if not to change the course of world history, but to restrain the hand of tyrants and murderers who commit genocide. The heinous crime against humanity was defined in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, and is punishable under international law.
It had been a long, exhausting journey for the Rohingya woman, from a squalid refugee camp to the arched doorways and stained-glass windows of this imposing temple of international justice. It was also her first trip by airplane. But she was there as a key witness in what proved to be a landmark case that led to a unanimous decision by all 17 judges.
In a January 23 ruling, they demanded that Myanmar cease and desist from all acts that the UN investigators have already determined fit the definition of genocide against the Rohingyas.
The ICJ also ordered Myanmar to preserve all evidence of the genocide, and to report within four months, and then every six months after that to the UN on steps they are taking to comply with the order.
“In the refugee camps in Bangladesh there was a communications blackout but they got news of the ICJ ruling through a small satellite receiver on top of a hill,” said John Packer, Director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa in an interview with Convivium. “The question they (refugees) asked was: ‘What does it mean? Do we get to go home now?’”
Although the return of over half a million Rohingyas to their ancestral homeland is unlikely to happen for many years, Packer and other activists and experts consider it to be a precedent-setting case—a small step in the world’s slow march to the fulfillment of its solemn “never again” pledge made in the aftermath of perhaps the 20th Century’s most infamous genocide, the Holocaust.
They spoke about the prevention of future genocides with guarded optimism, but Packer and others were quick to note the positive elements of this case.
A Maclean’s Magazine article quoted Canadian Payam Akhavan, international lawyer and professor in the McGill University School of Law as saying: “These kinds of moments are very, very rare,” and that “it was really encouraging.”
As lead counsel for the chief prosecutor, Gambia, the West African nation that had initiated the trial, Akhavan played a key role in the proceedings.
“There are unprecedented elements about it,” Packer said. “It was a remarkable action on the part of Gambia.” The tiny country had charged Myanmar with the systematic murder and displacement of the Rohingya people (a Muslim minority in Buddhist- majority Myanmar) in a deadly, slow-burning genocidal campaign orchestrated by its military rulers and de facto leader Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. In doing so, Gambia claimed that Myanmar is violating the Genocide Convention to which both countries, Myanmar and Gambia are signatories.
Packer noted that Gambia’s Minister of Justice Abubacarr Tambadou had spent years prosecuting cases from the Rwanda genocide of 1994.
In 2017, Tambadou and a delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had visited Cox’s Bazaar, the overcrowded camp, where they met some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who had fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar since August 2017. The visitors listened to stories of how security forces had burnt Rohingya children alive, raped women and killed men.
Until then, the international community had done little or nothing to stop these atrocities, but the Gambian minister started the process of bringing the case before the ICJ.
Both Packer and Akhavan noted that the degree of cooperation from the the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was remarkable.
Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, highlighted the role played by civil society in the pushback against Myanmar.
“The Global Centre for Responsibility to Protect worked with Gambia on this case,” Matthews told Convivium. He too is cautiously optimistic about the long-term effects of the ruling.
“The court ruling was extremely important, and sent the message by shaming Suu Kyi, that this can’t go on forever,” he said. This sent a deeper, longer term message to the world, and reduced the space for impunity.”
Fareed Khan agreed the ruling was an important milestone, but cautioned the ICJ’s enforcement mechanisms are limited.
“We’re waiting to see how Myanmar will respond to the reporting requirements,” he said. He added, however, that Bangladesh military leaders had met with their counterparts in Myanmar after the ruling, and had reported that the Myanmar generals were clearly worried.
Khan also pointed out, that this case went through the court with unprecedented speed. It was filed in November 2019, and the ruling was given on Jan. 23.